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Bay Area filmmakers capture the fight to preserve sacred Hawaiian site at Mauna Kea
Pualani Case faces the sky in prayer for the sacred Mauna Kea in August 2018, seen in the upcoming documentary directed by Jalena Keane-Lee, Standing Above the Clouds, which follows three families of native Hawaiian activists working to protect their sacred mountain from a proposed Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT). Photo: Reaa Puri / Courtesy: Breaktide Productions

As of late, footage of protests occurring atop the sacred Hawaiian mountain, Mauna Kea, have been appearing on television, computer, and phone screens everywhere. Despite the sudden surge of media coverage, however, the struggle to preserve and protect Mauna Kea from desecration has been a battle long fought by native and indigenous Hawaiians since the 1960s.

The lack of awareness and action surrounding Mauna Kea motivated Berkeley native and award-winning filmmaker Jalena Keane-Lee to shine a light on the narratives of those who have been placing themselves on the frontlines for the cause since the arduous efforts to protect their beloved Mauna first began.

In her upcoming documentary “Standing Above the Clouds,” Keane-Lee follows three families of native Hawaiian activists working to protect their sacred mountain from a proposed Thirty-Meter Telescope (TMT). Specifically, the project centers the narratives of the intergenerational women who are leading the fight against further destruction of their sacred space.

Standing at 14,000 feet above sea level—literally above the clouds—Mauna has withstood a long history of exploitation but remains a site of resistance and hope for indigenous Hawaiians. Mauna Kea activists along with KAHEA: The Hawaiian-Environmental Alliance, describe the timeline of events that have led up to the recent demonstrations.

According to activists that Keane-Lee interviewed, Mauna Kea is considered a sacred place and is known as the ‘piko’ or portal that connects the human realm to the spiritual realm. In 1968, the University of Hawai’i (UH) sited Mauna as an ideal location for astronomical study and proceeded to have 13 observatories built on the mountain, most without proper permits. Since then, these observatories have been severely mistreating the Mauna and continuously fail to adhere to the conditions of their lease of the land that were literally set in place to protect it.

The latest TMT currently proposed to be built would be 30-meters or 18-stories tall, making it the largest telescope to be constructed on the mountain. The TMT groundbreaking ceremony was set to occur on October 7, 2014 but was disrupted by Mauna protectors and has since been put off due to the unrelenting efforts of those who put their bodies on the line everyday.

Filmmaker Jalena Jalena Keane-Lee captures footage for her documentary “Standing Above the Clouds.” Courtesy: Jalena Keane-Lee

Keane-Lee, along with her all women of color (WOC) production company, Breaktide Productions, have been working on this project for the past year and have included one of the most visible members and spokesperson for the movement. Pualani Case—or how Keane-Lee endearingly calls her “Auntie Pua”—has been an instrumental force in the fight against the TMT and is now a consulting producer on the project.

Staying true to the activists’ vision as director has been a major priority for Keane-Lee in “Standing Above the Clouds” as well as in her first two documentaries. Bringing Auntie Pua aboard as consulting producer ensured an ethical approach to filmmaking that Keane-Lee maintains as indisposable.

“I would never want to detach from their vision or take up any emotional space when it comes to processing the things that are happening in such a difficult situation,” Keane-Lee said. “We take [Auntie Pua’s] feedback very seriously.”

The lack of mentorship by and overall access to WOC film professors during her time at Wellesley College in Massachusetts had a heavy hand in inspiring Keane-Lee to create her own community of WOC in the film industry as well as to uplift those narratives in the work she creates.

“It was that, plus the 2016 election that really pushed me to want to work with WOC, specifically,” Keane-Lee said. “I moved back to the Bay Area after I graduated and found out about Brown Girls Doc Mafia, which is an all WOC documentary group that’s led by women who have been in the industry for so long. Through that, I was able to go to film festival parties and network. The community is so great in so many ways. I’ve been able to do what I’m doing because of so many women who have laid the groundwork for me.”

Breaktide Productions is a direct result of the need for more WOC in the film industry. Keane-Lee, Reea Puri, and Alex J. Bledsoe recognized this need and joined forces to create an ethical and equitable production company that serves to democratize filmmaking by centering underrepresented voices both in front of and behind the camera. This act of community combats the male-centric culture that exists in the film industry and makes room for women to create content that speaks to the many narratives that are often overlooked by the mainstream.

“When we see social justice pieces made in the industry, they’re usually painfully male-centric. The directors might sometimes make a vague nod to the women on the team that helped bring the project together, but those women rarely ever get to speak for themselves or show any depth,” Keane-Lee said. “That was something I really wanted to change. I thought that maybe if I didn’t do it, no one else would. People in power never have to concern themselves with being objective or showing both sides to every story. They get to present all the different layers of themselves in a very intimate way and marginalized communities are rarely ever given the same opportunity.”

In “Standing Above the Clouds,” just as in her past projects, Keane-Lee ultimately hopes that her work serves as a reminder of the power of the underrepresented and a call to action to those who have the means to help.

“I hope that [this project] can move the needle in terms of the amount of people who are not only aware of the issue but aware of it in a meaningful way,” Keane-Lee said. “I’m also hoping it will teach people about what indigenous women are capable of and, in turn, what they themselves are capable of. We all need to stand for something. Now is the time.”

Story by: Elissa Jiménez